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Gastonia doctor brings tennis to the blind

Vision is a rather vital component of every tennis player’s game. What would you do if you could no longer see the ball well enough to hit? Some people in that situation might decide tennis isn’t for them, but one doctor in Gastonia is proving tennis is truly for everyone, even players who are blind.

Dr. Rey Garrido, an optometrist at Gastonia Eye Associates, discovered the idea of bringing tennis to visually impaired players over a year ago. While he was skeptical at first, the concept piqued his interest because of his background.

“I came across a video of blind people playing tennis. At first I thought no way, this has to be a joke. Being an optometrist and a tennis player, it caught my attention,” Garrido said. “I threw the idea out to my daughters about teaching the blind to play. We started getting more serious and that’s when we started this.”

As Garrido did more research on his new venture, he found that blind tennis isn’t as uncommon as some might think. Garrido said this adaptive sport originated in Japan in the late 1980s, and it’s quite popular today in multiple countries around the world.  

According to the National Federation of the Blind, a total 6.6 million Americans over the age of 16 were reported to have a visual disability in 2012. Garrido wanted to provide an opportunity for this population to play the sport he loves, so he created a nonprofit organization called Soundball Tennis.

“We weren’t sure what to expect, but we’ve already started to see a big increase in participation. The players spread the word pretty quick,” Garrido said. “They’re having a good time. They’re enjoying themselves. They’re happy someone’s doing something like this.”

Garrido has been around tennis his whole life. His father was a professional tennis player who won the Canadian Open (currently known as the Rogers Cup) in 1959.  Garrido followed in his father’s footsteps by becoming an avid junior player, but an injury prevented him from pursuing a professional career.

Today Garrido is active in the tennis community. His daughters are competitive junior players who train at Johan Creek Tennis Academy. They’ve made it a family effort to develop Soundball Tennis.

“We love the sport. We’ve benefitted in so many ways and this was a good opportunity for my kids to take their talents and give back,” Garrido said. “Right now this is all new for these players. It takes a while to get used to. We progress through different stages. A lot of them have never played tennis in their lives. We do a lot of listening skills, racquet skills. You have to modify things.”

So how does it work?

“Their ears become their eyes. We make our own ball. It’s basically a foam junior ball that we cut in half, scoop out the middle and place a ping pong ball in the middle with pellets inside. Each bounce allows them to know the speed, the height of the ball. They have to get ready and make impact at the exact moment the ball crosses their path,” Garrido said. “It’s played like normal tennis. The lines are raised so they can feel where they’re at on the court. They use shorter racquets. They have to stay low to listen. Depending on their impairment they get 2-3 bounces.”

Soundball Tennis recently received a $1,000 grant from USTA North Carolina to assist with early stages of their organization’s growth. Amy Franklin, USTA North Carolina Director of Community Development, Outreach & Training, said the grant will be a big help as Soundball Tennis continues to expand.

“This is a program grant that will help them with equipment. They’re going to be doing a lot of different clinics, and the most expensive part is their equipment,” Franklin said. “I think it’s a great opportunity to reach out to this community, get a racquet in their hands and let them try tennis.”

Soundball Tennis is a time-consuming effort for both the players and the instructors. Players need time to adapt, and Garrido and his daughters are still learning about what it takes to teach these clinics. But it’s already a big hit, and more players are showing interest every day.

“We’re learning a lot as we go along. It’s wonderful seeing the expressions on their faces as they play,” Garrido said. “All the players are so just grateful. It’s very fulfilling.”

More clinics are being made available every day in the Charlotte area. If you’re interested in Soundball Tennis, contact Garrido at soundballtennis@gmail.com or find Soundball Tennis on Facebook.